How Small Fashion Brands Are Wedding Sustainability With Style

Around the globe, a handful of small, independent fashion brands are putting transparency and sustainability first—with seriously stylish results.

Angel Chang

After working for Chloé and Donna Karan, Chang had no plans to start her own line. “The world did not need another fashion brand,” she says. And then, during a trip to Shanghai, she came across some exquisite textiles made by the Miao and Dong ethnic groups that proved there was another way to make clothes—one without synthetic materials, toxic runoff, or actually much waste at all. “I wanted to show that it is possible to make a zero-carbon fashion collection without polluting the planet,” she says. It’s less her personal ingenuity, she says, than a return to the way things were. “Clothing has historically been made sustainably. It’s only in the last 150 years that it has become so polluting for the environment and harmful for workers.”

Related: 10 of the World’s Top Ethical Fashion Brands

Chang crafts her elegant, ultra-flattering, direct-to-consumer day wear (indigo palazzo pants, airy cotton dresses with boatnecks and poet sleeves) the same way it would have been made 200 years ago: All of her pieces are grown, spun, woven, dyed, and sewn in a cluster of villages in Guizhou province, entirely by hand, from “seed to button,” and without the use of any electricity. “It seemed like one of those impossible life challenges that one is just driven to do—like climb Mount Everest or sail around the world,” she says. “For me, it was about making a collection strictly following ancient techniques before they disappear forever, and show- ing the world that when it comes to sustainability, the answers are already here.”

Somewhere


From left: A draped overcoat by Another Tomorrow is made with merino wool that meets the Responsible Wool Standard; Somewhere’s compostable organic- cotton shirt and jeans. FROM LEFT: COURTESY ANOTHER TOMORROW; COURTESY MAGGIE MARILYN

Maggie Hewitt launched her line of pretty party frocks, Maggie Marilyn, in her native New Zealand in 2016 with the aim of putting sustainability front and center. Now Hewitt has furthered the concept with a new line of approachably priced direct-to-consumer basics called Somewhere. The clothes are created out of three fabrics: organic cotton, merino wool (both of which can be recycled or composted), and a nylon made of plastics pulled from landfills and oceans. The 11-piece collection acts as a kind of “testing ground, outside of the crazy fashion cycle,” Hewitt says, independent of any fashion schedule, and only in small quantities—what Hewitt feels are the first steps toward a fully circular and regenerative system.

Related: Here’s What Fashion and Beauty Brands Are Doing to Be More Sustainable

Hewitt has zeroed in on exactly what a healthy future for the industry might look like. She plans to lead by example. “To us, sustainability means being locally made in order to support our homegrown talent and industry,” she says. “It means ensuring our makers and suppliers have signed our supplier code of conduct,” which out- lines the brand’s standards regarding animal welfare, chemical and water use, greenhouse-gas emissions, living wages, working conditions, and waste management. “Ultimately,” she says, it is about guaranteeing that “every person our business touches is empowered, and that the health of our planet is at the forefront of every decision.” Being well-dressed is just a bonus.

Another Tomorrow

Vanessa Barboni Hallik founded her end-to-end-sustainable collection Another Tomorrow during a sabbatical from her 15-year career in finance: “a beautiful accident,” she says, sprung from a personal love of fashion complicated by the difficulty of finding stylish clothing that matched her environmental principles. “It was clear to me,” she says, “that a new model was required that could deliver holistically sustainable, ethical, and desirable product to a customer who was already living their values in other aspects of their life” and couldn’t quite figure out how those same values applied to fashion, because of the complicated nature of supply chains and the greenwashing of the industry at large.

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No longer: With Another Tomorrow, each crisp cotton shirt or sleek linen suit jacket bears an interior tag with a scannable QR code that outlines the item’s provenance, tracing its journey from farm to material to factory to your cart at Matches Fashion. “We build our supply chains using organic and ethical fibers sourced from the farm or the forest up, wherever possible; ensure payment of living wages and safe working conditions; and avoid any raw materials that harm animals or cause environmental harm,” says Barboni Hallik. The company also maintains a digital platform for education and advocacy, which has pushed for transparency and responsibility across the fashion industry. With the COVID-19 crisis, Barboni Hallik sees an opportunity for a kind of reset that’s been considered too big and unwieldy to undertake in any serious way until now. “My core hope for the industry is that it fully embraces new business models that can steer us away from the ‘growth for growth’s sake’ model that has led to such exceptional waste and exploitation,” Barboni Hallik says. “For us as a brand, success means delivering genuine value for our customers’ lives.”